The Vatican more liberal than the US bishops on same-sex marriage?

The Vatican’s top official on family life endorsed legal protections for same-sex couples in his first public press conference in the Vatican earlier this week. Reporting on the first Vaitican press conference by the head of the Pontifical Council for the Family, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, Religion News Service wrote:

Paglia conceded that there are several kinds of “cohabitation forms that do not constitute a family,” and that their number is growing. Paglia suggested that nations could find “private law solutions” to help individuals who live in non-matrimonial relations, “to prevent injustice and make their life easier.”

He also said he would “like the church to fight against” sodomy laws in the nations where they’re still in effect.

Paglia, of course, reiterated a firm opposition to recognizing same-sex marriages, saying, “The church must defend the truth, and the truth is that a marriage is only between a man and a woman.”

But if his statements truly reflect the church’s official position, then the Holy See now seems to be to the left of its bishops in many countries—including the United States.

Yesterday, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops reportedly sent a missive to the White House threatening to help block an immigration reform package if it would smooth the immigration path for same-sex partners of American citizens.

The USCCB would not make the letter public, but the bishops’ spokesperson, Sister Mary Anne Walsh, told the Associated Press that inclusion of these provisions—which have been endorsed by the White House—could “jeopardizes passage of the bill.” This threat is shocking because immigration reform has been a major priority for the U.S. church, and one of the few big issues in which it has seen eye-to-eye with the Democratic Party.

The immigration reform package recently unveiled by President Barack Obama proposes treating “same-sex families as families by giving U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents the ability to seek a visa on the basis of a permanent relationship with a same-sex partner.”

The Chilean Church has also staked out a position to the right of this new line from the Vatican in its fight against President Sebastián Piñera’s proposal to provide some protections to same-sex couples, called “Acuerdo de Vida en Pareja.” This translates more or less to a Life Partnership Agreement, and it would be a civil contract that mostly protects the property rights of same-sex couples.

During a hearing last month in the Chilean senate, Bishop Juan Ignacio González testified that even this level of protection would lead to “the destruction of human beings and …. destruction to social and family peace among men.”

Similarly, Catholic hierarchy helped kill a Costa Rican civil union law late last year, pronouncing that recognition of same-sex couples “distorts the perception of fundamental moral values and undermines the institution of marriage.”

Of course, it’s an open question whether Paglia actually is voicing church policy or whether the church intends to follow his words with actions. His call to decriminalize sodomy seems especially contradictory given that the pope gave a special blessing in December to the member of parliament from Uganda who is pushing the “Kill the Gays” bill.

We have seen some softening of the hard-line against protections for same-sex couples in countries where the church is losing the fight over same-sex marriage. In Uruguay, for example, where the Congress is expected to pass an “Equal Marriage Law” this spring, the country’s top bishop has endorsed civil unions, hoping to head off full marriage rights.

The Vatican may be similarly moderating its line as it sees how quickly it is losing the marriage debate on its home continent. It will be interesting to see how long bishops in other places where the same-sex marriage movement is gaining ground—including the United States—will hold onto their hardline position.

Latin America’s gay marriage revolution

Published by Foreign Policy Magazine.

In his second inaugural address, U.S. President Barack Obama pledged to make the United States a beacon for the world by recommitting the country to its ideals of equality. He also made history by saying those ideals demand marriage rights for same-sex couples just as they have demanded equal citizenship for women and African Americans.

But even if the Supreme Court or lawmakers soon agree with Obama’s words — “for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well” — the United States will be a latecomer to advancing marriage rights. The world’s leaders on this issue are not just from places Americans might expect — Western Europe or Canada — but many countries in our own hemisphere; places not usually known for progressivism on social issues. While Obama was undergoing his “evolution” on marriage rights, there has been a gay rights revolution that has stretched from Tierra del Fuego to the Rio Grande.

One dramatic illustration: When a broad coalition of human-rights activists brought a gay rights charter to the United Nations in 2007, the push was led not by the likes of Sweden or the Netherlands, but by Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil. Same-sex marriage was not legal in any of these countries then, but a lot has changed in the years since. Continue reading

Same-sex couple leading court challenge in Taiwan to withdraw case tomorrow

This is a guest post by Amy Hsieh, a former aide in the Taiwan legislature and a doctoral student in political science at George Washington University.

The same-sex couple who was about to become a test case for marriage rights in Taiwan’s top court has announced they will formally withdraw their case tomorrow. According to a press release, Nelson Chen and Kao Chih-wei will hold a press conference tomorrow afternoon and then submit their motion to the court. This comes just a week after the court postponed a decision until late February on sending the case up to the Constitutional Court for interpretation.

This decision is a real head-scratcher, since their justifications seem thin and it comes over the objections of their attorney. Chen—who does the public speaking for the couple—has said that he is worried about the safety of his family and friends after getting threats on Facebook. He also has cited dissatisfaction with the court’s handling of the case, but it’s unclear what he would have liked to see handled differently.

The couple’s own pro bono lawyer, Liu Chi-wei, had requested the judge to send the case up for constitutional interpretation. Now Chen has posted an apology to Liu for deciding to withdraw the suit and thanked him for his hard work over the past year.

Chen is now urging their supporters to now instead support the Task Force’s efforts to push for a bill on domestic partnership rights, with whom he previously clashed over whether to proceed with the case in the first place.

It’s not yet clear whether this move will actually end this landmark case in Taiwan’s LGBT history. According to Chen’s lawyers, technically the court can deny the request to withdraw the suit if the case is deemed to be in the public interest.

Chen has scheduled a full day of public activities for tomorrow on top of the press conference. He will have lunch with the first gay couple to openly marry in the central Taiwan city of Taichung, shop for clothes at a boutique in Taipei’s gay-friendly Red Theater district, and take a blood test for HIV. Al Jazeera reporters will be covering his itinerary.

Are LGBT activists pressuring Taiwanese couple to drop marriage suit?

This post is based on reporting by Amy Hsieh.

Is Taiwan’s LGBT movement pressuring a same-sex couple to drop their lawsuit for marriage recognition just as its set to go to the island’s top court?

The case of Nelson Chen and Kao Chih-wei took and unexpected turn this week just as an administrative court was convening a hearing to refer their suit to the Constitutional Court. According to media reports, Chen said that he “might” or “tentatively intends to” withdraw his case. At the time, he said this was because he wanted to spare his family the attacks that have been posted on their Facebook pages.

But there are hints that they may be getting pressure from inside the LGBT movement to drop the case because of fear that an unfavorable ruling could set the cause back. On Thursday, an umbrella group pushing for a same-sex partnership law in the island’s legislature, issued a statement refuting remarks Chen allegedly made saying he was being pushed to withdraw the case. The statement from the Taiwan Domestic Partnership Task Force said:

We have never asked Nelson to withdraw his suit. In fact, we support every individual who is willing to stand up for their rights. Even if the constitutional interpretation turns out to contravene our belief in equal rights…no one will nor should place blame on individuals who have been brave enough to take a stand.

It’s unclear how seriously the couple is threatening to withdraw–the language used in media reports about his hesitation is very peculiar. But Chen announced that he will hold a “withdrawal of lawsuit press conference” on January 23 in a post on his Facebook page, inexplicably pairing the announcement with a picture of a toilet bowl. Reading between the lines, this could be is a play for more time to iron out disagreement with other LGBT rights activists in Taiwan.

If there is intra-movement disagreement about moving the case to the Taiwan’s top court, that wouldn’t be unusual. In many countries where individuals or couples have pushed marriage cases, institutional gay rights organizations have opposed such lawsuits fearing they were premature.


Taiwan same-sex couple considers withdrawing their case

In protest of a “passive attitude from the Justice system,” the couple at the center of Taiwan’s high-profile same-sex marriage lawsuit boycotted a Tuesday hearing on sending the case to the Constitutional Court, according to the Taipei Times.

They also hinted they may be having second thoughts about moving ahead with the case because they have become the targets of harassment.

“Does seeking marriage registration still make sense if my friends and family are hurt because of it?” said Nelson Chen, who complained his family had been attacked on their Facebook pages.

I’m still working on getting more information on what exactly happened today and what the couple is seeking from the Justice system–the information so far online is vague. The Taipei Times reports:

When asked by the press what they expected from the justice system, Chen said the Ministry of Justice should have played a more active role by proposing a revision of the law after it had completed a study on the same-sex marriage systems in Germany, France and Canada in May last year.

The report concluded that the Registered Same-Sex Partnership Regime adopted by Germany offers “a better common ground and a compromise solution between the marriage equality groups and those who are opposed to same-sex marriages.”

The court yesterday said that if the plaintiff and the defendant, the Zhongshan District Household Registration Office, would like to provide more information about whether such a union goes against the Constitution of the Republic of China, they could do so by Feb. 22.

Two women marry in Indonesia, then forced to flee

One thing I often hear from activists in very conservative countries is that marriage is not a priority because there’s much more urgent work to be done to make LGBT people safe and protect them from government harassment.

That’s a practical argument. But I’m struck by the stories that appear every few months about people in such countries going to great lengths to try to marry anyway, like the couple in India’s Uttar Pradesh that tried to marry this spring.

This one appeared this week from Indonesia. The Jakarta Post reports that two women—Angga Sucipto, 21, and Ninies Ramiliyutias, 40—managed to marry in January of 2012 by having Angga pass as a man when they registered their marriage with the Sei Beduk Religious Affairs Office (KUA) in Riau Islands.

The story is confusing, but it sounds like Angga is transgendered and lived as a man full time. But eventually the locals became suspicious of Angga for “never interact[ing] with them.” So the neighbors “raided” the couple’s house to check on Angga’s sex.

The story quotes “a neighbor” named Ricard Butar-Butar: “Finally, on Monday, we raided the couple’s house and discovered that Angga was actually a female.”

The community expelled Angga from the house but allowed Ninies to stay “because she owned the house.” Yet Ninies appears to have fled the house and gone into hiding after the raid.

The story continues:

Following the discovery of the same-sex couple, the Riau Islands KUA plans to increase the frequency of marriage counseling to prevent similar cases from happening in the future, according to the office’s head, Handarlin Umar.

The office also planned to report the marriage to the Religious Ministry next Monday, he added.

“We are still deciding whether to file a report with the police. We will report the case to the ministry first to ask for guidance on how to proceed,” Handarlin said.

The geopolitical stakes of Taiwan’s marriage case

A Taiwanese lower court meets Tuesday to formally decide whether to send a same-sex marriage suit to the island’s Constitutional Court. This is new territory for the Taiwanese legal system, but some experts say momentum is on the side of same-sex marriage advocates.

“This time is a real turning point,” said Chang Hong-Chen, an expert in Taiwan’s sexuality law who is close to the Constitutional Court.

While it’s far from certain what the court will decide–if it even agrees to take the case–the very fact that it’s being treated as a serious legal question is a major step forward.

Taiwan’s larger geopolitical interests are one important factor on the side of the couple suing for recognition. Taiwan ratified two major United Nations human rights treaties in 2009 and is in the process of bringing its laws into compliance with these standards. This process is about more than protecting the rights of its residents–it’s part of the battle with China over its diplomatic status.

Only a handful of nations recognize Taiwan as an independent nation, since the China still claims Taiwan to be part of its territory. If Taiwan can prove itself to be a model global citizen, some Taiwanese leaders hope, it will be able to make a stronger case for greater participation in the international community.

“Our government likes to play the international human rights card,” said Chen Yi-chien, a professor at the Graduate Institute of Gender Studies at Shih Hsin University.

While same-sex marriage rights aren’t specifically protected by international treaties, the focus on improving Taiwan’s human rights record has created an opening for same-sex marriage advocates to promote their case. It comes at a time that courts in other countries are increasingly concluding that marriage rights are human rights that deserve protection.

“This is just the right moment for the issue to be discussed from a legal perspective,” Chang said. “People in Taiwan and the justices of the Constitutional Court, they take foreign jurisprudence very seriously.”

But Chen isn’t holding her breath for a sweeping ruling establishing same-sex marriage rights; that might be too big a leap for Taiwan to take in this case. But she does think that there’s a good chance that the court could issue a ruling that would advance the cause even if it doesn’t immediately create a right to same-sex marriages.

“They are not going to say the current law is unconstitutional, but we’re hoping they will say … something in-between,” she said.

From her point of view, however, legal recognition is a secondary goal. If all this case does is to open serious debate on the question of same-sex couples rights, it will still have been an important achievement.

The goal, she explained, should be to “to use this kind of legal approaches to make society aware that there is a problem and how should we discuss… the issues of LGBT [people].”

The international context of this case means that the decision of the United States Supreme Court in the pending marriage cases could have a strong effect on Taiwan’s case. A broad ruling in favor of same-sex marriage rights could up the pressure on Taiwan’s justices, while a ruling against marriage rights could disuade the justices from taking the case at all.

“American law has a great deal of influence on this issue,” Chang said.